Can Modern Pedestrians Learn from Pompeiian Crosswalks?


Pompeii street with crosswalk and ruts

Pompeii street with crosswalk and ruts

I was obsessed with the crosswalks and street intersections when I visited Pompeii.

Throughout the city, the cobblestone street was lined with raised sidewalks of various widths and heights.  Then, at most intersections and at intervals down the street, there were large stones set across the street.  These stones were a comfortable large step apart, and would have allowed people to cross the street without having to step down to the level of the street.  This would have ensured people didn’t have to walk in the mud and filth accumulated in the street and also make it easier since people wouldn’t have had to step down and back up again.

People using the crosswalk at Pompeii

People using the crosswalk at Pompeii

On the street, the gaps between the stones meant that carts could still navigate between and over the stone, while also allowing drainage, and many of the crosswalks had developed rather dramatic ruts between the stones from the passing of many carts!

I was surprised to discover though that I couldn’t determine whether the crosswalk stones used at Pompeii were an idiosyncrasy of that city, or whether they were a common feature of all Roman cities and roads.  It’s difficult to determine since most of the Roman roads have been altered.  So, it is possible that they were a common feature, but have been removed.  Does anybody know?

High crosswalk at Pompeii

Particularly high crosswalk at Pompeii

One interesting observation that occurred to me as I wandered around Pompeii was the actual act of stepping between these stones.  For me, stepping between these stones was a large step, but not an uncomfortable one.  The ergonomics of the stones had been clearly been considered as some of the sets of crossing stones were higher than others, corresponding to differing heights of the sidewalk.  Recently, there was a discussion on Twitter about ancient Roman stride length led Dr. Kristina Killgrove based on formula from forensics and exercise medicine using ancient skeletons.  This was in response to a question by Eric Poehler (@pompeiana79) who was looking at stepping stones at Pompeii, and as I stepped between the crosswalk stones, I was definitely thinking about the stride length it required and how comfortable I was.

I think it is interesting to think about other things  in Dr. Killgrove’s post raised by @RogueClassicist, namely how clothing and other realities of life would have affected stride length.  Would people wearing stiff or restrictive togas have been able to take these long strides required to step between the stones?  What about when they were wet?  The stones were worn very smooth, and I wonder if they would be very slick when wet.

Comfortable stride between stones on a crosswalk at Pompeii

Comfortable stride between stones on a crosswalk at Pompeii

I thought these crosswalks were remarkable and wonderful.  They seem to have provided a great compromise between pedestrians and wheeled transport, which is an issue that still concerns cities today.  Pedestrians today are at the mercy of cars, and cities definitely design for wheeled transport.  There are initiatives today to try to bring pedestrians and walking back to the centre of urban planning, with discussions revolving around ‘whole streets’.  In fact, apparently 4500 people are killed and 68 000 pedestrians are injured walking every year.  It is compared to an airplane falling from the sky every day – if it was any other industry, it would be shut down in order to solve the problem (Project for Public Spaces).  I think Pompeii provides an interesting case study for safe walking since pedestrians were clearly an important part of the infrastructure.  The crosswalk stones were built purely for pedestrians, but due to their design, there was very little impact on wheeled and animal transport.  Would raising crosswalks today and forcing cars to negotiate between stones help make pedestrians safer?  Did the ancient Pompeiians have the right idea?

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2 Responses to Can Modern Pedestrians Learn from Pompeiian Crosswalks?

  1. Pingback: Around the Archaeology Blog-o-sphere Digest #7 | Doug's Archaeology

  2. Anna says:

    poor pompeiian people with disabilities, moms with strollers and…………….. cyclists 🙂

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